There are a number of misconceptions that worry me whenever I hear them espoused as facts. Such as the statement that America is a democracy. Unfortunately, that may be true today, but in its beginning it was established as a constitutional republic. In this nation’s founding, the fallacies and weaknesses of a democracy were not only understood, but rejected. However, this post is not about what a democracy is, it’s about another fallacy that I read far too often. The idea that our Founding Fathers were predominately deist.
What is a deist? Deism is the belief “that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is a creation and has a creator. Further the term often implies that this Supreme Being does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending to assert that God (as “the Supreme Architect”) has a plan for the universe that he does not alter by intervening in the affairs of human life. This idea is also known as the Clockwork universe theory, in which a god designs and builds the universe, but steps aside to let it run on its own. Deists believe in the existence of God without any reliance on revealed religion, religious authority or holy books.”
What is a “Founding Father?” David Barton, in Original Intent (WallBuilder Press, 1997, ch. 6), defines a founder as “one who exerted significant influence in, provided prominent leadership for, or had a substantial impact upon the birth, development, and establishment of America as an independent, self-governing nation.”
A common support for the assertion that the Founders were deist, agnostic or even atheist, is to take statements out of context. For example the quote: “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it”—John Adams.
It comes from a letter he wrote to Thomas Jefferson on April 19, 1817. After describing a debate between Lemuel Bryant, his parish priest, and Joseph Cleverly, his Latin schoolmaster, Adams wrote:
“Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!’ But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell” (Barton, Original Intent).
While there was some anti-organized-religion sentiment among the Founders, such as from Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen, they were few. David Barton goes on to give a sampling (8 pages) of quotes such as this one: “The religion I have [is] to love and fear God, believe in Jesus Christ, do all the good to my neighbor, and myself that I can, do as little harm as I can help, and trust on God’s mercy for the rest”—Daniel Boon, revolutionary officer; legislator.
He also gives 55 examples of offices held by these heroic men, such as: John Brooks (Governor of Massachusetts; Revolutionary general): President of Middlesex County Bible Society; and Francis Scott Key (Attorney, author of “The Star-spangled Banner”): Manager and Vice-President of the American Sunday School Union.
What about Thomas Jefferson? In his own words: “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”
How would these men respond to being called deist? Consider this objection from Patrick Henry: “The rising greatness of our country. . .is greatly tarnished by the general prevalence of deism which, with me, is but another name for vice and depravity. . . .I hear it is said by the deists that I am one of their number; and indeed that some good people think I am no Christian. This thought gives me much more pain than the appellation of Tory [being called a traitor], because I think religion of infinitely higher importance than politics. . . [B]eing a Christian. . . is a character which I prize far above all this world has or can boast” (Barton, Original Intent).
Final thoughts by David Barton: “Despite the abundance of evidence on the highly religious nature of the Founding Fathers, many groups have ignored the clear historical records. Instead, they have promoted their own view of the alleged anit- or non-religious beliefs of our Founders in attempts to bolster their arguments for the current separation [of church and state] doctrine. The result is that the nation’s policies concerning religion and government have been turned upside-down. In fact not only does much of the nation not realize that the current ‘separation of church and state’ is not constitutionally mandated, many are not even aware that ‘the free exercise’ of religion is. . .How did this reversal happen?” (Barton, Original Intent).